Longform

How Dare They?

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Armstrong's zeal for filling the SCA with art didn't extend to developing a collection. He felt the SCA ought to be a place for temporary exhibitions and art education. Part of his rationale was that it wasn't possible to develop a good collection with the city council acting as curator. Up until the SCC was formed in 1987, the Scottsdale City Council was making all of the city's decisions about art. Armstrong and others recall that the city council had no curatorial focus, no sense of what would strengthen or weaken the collection. It was constantly accepting donations of things that were of little merit or use. Once, when the city council had accepted a donation of cut glass and passed it along to Armstrong, he loaned it in perpetuity to the Arizona State University museum.

"What was I going to do with it?" says Armstrong. "There was no place to put it. Whenever I got something, it would go in an office. Then there would be this whole thing. Where is the art collection? Is it being taken care of? Things would be behind file cabinets. Or somebody would get fired and maybe take the art with them. There was no way to accept good things, because when you accept good things you have a responsibility to take care of them."

The first donations, two paintings, came in 1967. Until 1987, when the SCC was formed in an effort to remove politics from the city's cultural programs, the city's policy, says Valerie Vadala-Homer, manager of the SCC's public art program and collections, "was to take anything that was offered. First week on the job, I got a call from somebody saying, 'I have this great beaver hat, would you like to have it?'"

Vadala-Homer says that the prospect of building a new museum gave the SCC the added incentive to focus its collection on contemporary art. In 1991, it began purchasing works from the SCA's series of New Directions exhibitions, featuring many of the region's more prominent contemporary artists. Two years ago, it purchased the print archives from Segura Publishing Company, a Tempe fine-art press that has produced prints for such artists as William Wegman, Luis Jimenez, Enrique Chagoya, Claudia Bernardi, Dominique Blain, Mark Klett and Frances Whitehead.

More recently, it received donations from many artists who have shown at the SCA in the past, and the gift of a sculptural "Glass House" by Therman Statom. These contributions come at a time when the museum hasn't yet decided what kind of collection it wants to build.

Museum experts say developing that vision will be key to SMOCA's success. Yet fulfilling it is one of the pricklier tasks of creating a museum of contemporary art.

Traditionalists warn of the speculative dangers of buying contemporary works, the reason being that curatorial perspective is more like a pulse check--skewed by fashion, personalities and the fear of missing the next Jackson Pollock before the prices rise.

Many contemporary art museums opt for the flexibility of not collecting, devoting all of their money and efforts instead to programming temporary exhibitions.

The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center does not collect, and it has been exhibiting works since the late 1930s. "Part of the basic tenets of our institution is that to collect is to not stay contemporary," says Charles Desmarais, its director.

Opinions vary about when "contemporary" begins and ends. SMOCA and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, see it as 1945 to the present. Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, says his museum includes works from 1950 to the present. Some auction houses consider 1970 the beginning of the new. The era before that is simply modern. But even that is subject to change. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently gave four prized drawings by Van Gogh and Seurat to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago because their original donor, a co-founder of MoMA, had imagined--wrongly--a day when the works would be too old to still be considered fresh or new. The donor's 1947 will specified the transfer of the works after 50 years to the other institutions, which at the time handled only old art. Both institutions now have extensive collections of modern art. In the past decade, the Art Institute of Chicago has become an aggressive collector of contemporary art.

Advocates of collecting contemporary art say that whatever the costs and inconveniences of collecting--acquisition funds, the need for storage, registration and conservation--they are usually outweighed by their value to institutions.

"One of the disadvantages of not collecting," says Lynn Herbert, curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, which does not collect, "is that people don't come in our doors to see their favorite things. Any time they come in, chances are they're going to see something they haven't seen before. So it puts a whole different burden on us to get people interested.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow